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Broadway Review—Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon in “The Little Foxes”

The Little Foxes
Written by Lillian Hellman; directed by Daniel Sullivan
Opened April 19, 2017
 
Cynthia Nixon and Laura Linney in The Little Foxes (photo: Joan Marcus)
 
Lillian Hellman’s Southern Gothic melodrama The Little Foxes has two juicy female roles—malevolent matriarch Regina Giddens and her alcoholic sister-in-law Birdie Hubbard—so it’s not surprising that, for the current Broadway revival, stars Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon take turns performing each.
 
I saw the play with Nixon as Regina and Linney as Birdie, and I’m glad I did. Linney’s warmth and good humor serve her in good stead as the pathetic but sympathetic Birdie, a victim of the family she foolishly married into. Her husband Oscar (Darren Goldstein) constantly berates her and her sister-in-law Regina and brother-in-law Ben (Michael McKean) all but ignore her. Her relationship with her beloved niece, 17-year-old Alexandra (Francesca Carpanini), is the only honest one in the family.
 
Linney’s persuasive performance is capped by a lovely scene when Birdie downs elderberry wine while reminiscing about the old days with Regina’s sickly husband Horace (Richard Thomas) and Alexandra. While speaking, Linney laughs and laughs, seemingly both as Birdie and as a comment on the absurdity of the situation, enveloping costars Thomas and Carpanini with her good vibes and creating an utterly natural onstage moment.
 
Nixon’s sharp-edged Regina is a schemer who knows what she wants and how to get it, whether keeping Horace as sick as possible, keeping daughter Alexandra under her thumb or outsmarting her brothers Ben and Oscar when it comes to the family fortune.
 
Our lead actressesflesh out these opposing characters appositely, and Daniel Sullivan’s always incisive direction surrounds them with terrific support: Thomas’ amusedly weary Horace; Michael McKean’s smiling while backstabbing Ben; Darren Goldstein’s clueless but cruel Oscar; and Carpanini’s affecting Alex.
 
The Little Foxes plays best as an old-fashioned—but gleefully nasty—soap opera; that it provides such luxurious roles for two talented actresses might be its signal virtue.
 
The Little Foxes
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street
manhattantheatreclub.com

April '17 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 

Three Brothers

(Arrow Academy)
Francesco Rosi’s subtle, insightful exploration of the complicated relationship among a trio of siblings—one a Roman judge, one a Turin factory worker and the other a counselor in Naples—was a 1981 Foreign Film Oscar nominee, but don’t hold that against it.
 
 
 
 
As usual, Rosi’s artfully unflashy direction pays dramatic dividends, especially paired with superior acting by Philippe Noiret, Michele Placido and Vittorio Mezzogiorno as the protagonists. There’s never a false moment in this quietly powerful piece of filmmaking. The hi-def transfer looks exceedingly handsome; lone extra is an hour-long 1987 audio interview with Rosi.
 
Caltiki—The Immortal Monster
Django Prepare a Coffin
(Arrow)
Even by paltry B-movie standards, Caltiki—a 1959 monster movie about an ancient Mayan god who goes on a terrorizing rampage after being awoken by archaeologists—is cheesy stuff, and not even Arrow’s typically pristine hi-def presentation can transform it into something resembling a competently-made guilty pleasure.
 
 
 
 
In the ho-hum Django (1968), our cowboy hero comes to the aid of framed innocent men, helping them take their revenge on the corrupt politician after their land. Caltiki extras include commentaries, interviews, intros, and a full-frame presentation of the film; the lone Django extra is an interview with a spaghetti western expert.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Girl with All the Gifts 

(Lionsgate)

Yet another dystopian nightmare, this one puts a twist on the familiar zombie movie plot: children who aren’t among the undead but who still feast on human flesh are a bridge of sorts between humans and the zombies themselves, including young Melanie, our heroine.
 
 
 
 
There’s suitably intense acting by Glenn Close, Paddy Considine, Gemma Arterton and Sennia Nanua as Melanie, which helps sell the creepy but uneven movie’s more routine aspects. The film looks great on Blu-ray; the lone extra is a making-of featurette.
 
La La Land
(Summit/Lionsgate)
Derivative, trite, silly and often eye-rollingly embarrassing, Damien Chazelle’s colossally vacuous musical has dull songs, flashily empty set pieces and two lovebirds whose personal and professional travails are sketched in so perfunctorily that it’s amazing this got nearly universal love and acclaim.
 
 
 
 
That Emma Stone won Best Actress is the biggest catastrophe in Oscar history, and Ryan Gosling’s woozy appearance is a new way to sleepwalk through a movie. It looks impressive and fancifully colorful on Blu-ray; there are lots of extras (on-set featurettes and interviews) as well as a commentary by Chazelle and the film’s composer Justin Hurwitz.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Tampopo 

(Criterion)

Juzo Itami’s droll 1985 comedy began a brief but intense love affair with his movies, a bunch of endearingly silly collaborations with his wife, star actress Nobuko Miyamoto, that later included the equally lively A Taxing Woman and A Taxing Woman Returns.
 
 
 
 
But Tampopo, extolling the virtues of food and cooking long before it became de rigueur on television, is the most lasting expression of the director’s effortless brand of comic mayhem. Criterion’s hi-def transfer looks simply delicious; extras include a Miyamoto interview, Itami’s own 90-minute making-of documentary and his 1962 debut short Rubber Band Pistol.
 
The Witness for the Prosecution
(Acorn)
This latest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s absorbing short story about the murder of a society matron is a solid effort, with superb acting by Kim Cattrall as the victim, Billy Howle as her boytoy/suspect, Toby Jones as his lawyer and Andrea Riseborough as the accused’s lover/alibi.
 
 
 
 
Too bad that the production design and atmosphere take precedence over Christie’s still-marvelous mystery. Unsurprisingly, the sumptuous hi-def transfer makes the film sparkle; extras include interviews with cast and creators.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
CD of the Week 
Betty Buckley—Story Songs
(Palmetto)
One of American musical theater’s true treasures, Betty Buckley made her Broadway debut in the classic 1776 and made her mark on shows like Follies, Sunset Boulevard and Grey Gardens. This two-disc set, with Buckley at her considerable vocal peak, shows how strong an interpreter she is within an intimate ensemble of piano, bass and drums. Disc one, recorded in Costa Mesa, California last year, features emotionally trenchant renditions of Stephen Schwartz’s “Chanson,” Kurt Weill’s “September Song” and Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” (where Buckley sings Gabriel’s and Kate Bush’s parts).
 
 
 
 
Disc two, from Joe’s Pub in Manhattan in 2015, features Buckley’s peerless versions of Sting’s “Practical Arrangement,” Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here,” alongside endearing stories about Howard Da Silva and Elaine Stritch, two of Buckley’s theatrical mentors.

Broadway Musical Review—Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole in “War Paint”

War Paint
Book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel, lyrics by Michael Korie
Directed by Michael Greif
Opened April 6, 2017
 
Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole (center) in War Paint (photo: Joan Marcus)

Like Feud, FX Network’s series about the legendary antagonism between Hollywood stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, the new musical War Paint dramatizes the battle royale between the most powerful women in the beauty industry: Helene Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. Unlike Feud—whose eight one-hour episodes methodically delved into the decades-long fighting between Davis and Crawford—War Paint has to confine its fascinating story to 2-1/2 hours, which often impedes the show’s dramatic momentum, despite the star-wattage of leading actresses Patti Lupone (Rubinstein) and Christine Ebersole (Arden).
 
That’s not to say War Paint fails—its flaws are not fatal—but the difficulty is that, in real life, Rubinstein and Arden (probably) never met. So director Michael Greif and his collaborators Doug Wright (book), Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics) have to cover that up by cleverly shuttling back and forth between the two women in their respective lives and careers, with their main men doing double duty: Rubinstein’s right-hand man Harry Fleming and Arden’s husband Tommy Lewis, each of whom left his boss and went to work for her direct competitor.
 
And War Paint works—up to a point. Catherine Zuber’s glamorous costumes, David Korins’ sleek sets and Kenneth Posner’s marvelous lighting provide needed visual luster whenever the drama or the music hits not infrequent lulls. Greif’s staging and Frankel/Korie’s songs place our protagonists center stage, rubbing shoulders even when on separate narrative tracks. Luckily, their stories are arresting enough to sustain interest even when, especially in Act II, everything starts to become repetitious or, conversely, is given short shrift.
 
For example, in the early 1940s, when both women’s companies ingeniously join the war effort to keep selling their beauty products even during severe rationing, a witty song, “Necessity Is the Mother of Invention,” covers it: then we suddenly fast-forward to the post-war 1950s, which introduces new business hurdles like appealing to teenage girls instead of their mothers. Cramming several decades’ worth of Rubinstein and Arden’s professional and personal intrigues reduces the show to a “greatest hits” package of highlights.
 
For War Paint to work well, it needs a top-notch cast, which it happily has. Heading an excellent supporting cast are sidekicks Douglas Sills (Fleming) and John Dossett (Lewis), who make the most of their time onstage dealing with shifting personal and professional allegiances or running into each other and commiserating despite their differences. Their droll duet, “Dinosaurs,” is an amused and bemused number about the twilight of their careers.
 
But Lupone and Ebersole are the main reasons to see War Paint,their electric performances as the tough-as-nails Polish immigrant and the Canadian farmer’s daughter complementing each other perfectly. Lupone’s thick Eastern European accent is initially impenetrable, especially while singing, but the ear adjusts and her complex portrayal rings through loud and clear by the time of her climactic song, “Forever Beautiful.” Likewise, Ebersole’s inimitably plucky portrait culminates in her big showstopper, “Pink.” Both of these 11 o’clock numbers give our legendary ladies what they deserve: a chance to bring the house down. And they don’t disappoint—even if War Paint sometimes does.
 
War Paint
Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st Street

warpaintbroadway.com

Film reviews—Lina Wertmuller Documentary “Behind the White Glasses”; Quad Cinema Retro “Lina Wertmuller: Female Trouble”

Behind the White Glasses
Directed by Valerio Ruiz
Opens April 21, 2017
Lina Wertmuller: Female Trouble
Series runs through May 1, 2017
 
Director Lina Wertmuller in Behind the White Glasses
 
The first and last images of Behind the White Glasses are of now 88-year-old director Lina Wertmuller typing furiously on her keyboard, epitomizing her five-decades long career of frantic and garish but intelligent and humane movies, with many unfilmed scripts cluttering up shelves in her office.
 
Documentary director Valerio Ruiz has made an admiring portrait of an artist whose often impressive work is an outgrowth of her gregarious personality, something which has shown itself throughout her 30-odd films, stuffed to the gills with so much vitality, aliveness and richly rendered real life that some label them too cartoonish or gaudy. Admittedly, that’s been both her great strength and weakness. At her peak (especially in her mid-‘70s classics The Seduction of Mimi, Love and Anarchy, Swept Away…, and culminating masterpiece Seven Beauties), Wertmuller was in firm control of whatever she put onscreen, much like her idol (and former employer) Federico Fellini, another Italian director whose effortless mastery of form provoked detractors to complain about his indifference to content, however unfair that criticism was.
 
Ruiz’s documentary spends much of its time discussing those four essential Wertmuller films, along with some of the others, misfires like A Night Full of Rain or Blood Feud. (It’s worth noting that Wertmuller’s Italian titles are almost impossibly wordy—another sign of her attempts to stuff as much as possible into every aspect of her films, even their titles.) And many talking heads enthusiastically and emphatically talk about Wertmuller, from her greatest collaborator, actor Giancarlo Giannini; her nephew, actor Massimo Wertmuller; and even a still-glamorous Sophia Loren, to her biggest American fans: director Martin Scorsese, actor Harvey Keitel (who made a film with her in Sicily) and critic John Simon, who famously raved about Seven Beauties, one of the rare movies to live up to his exacting standards.
 
But mainly Ruiz smartly concentrates on Lina herself, who engagingly reminisces about a career that began as Fellini’s assistant on 8-1/2, her brief adventures in America after becoming famous and how her life was shattered by the death of her beloved husband (and set designer for her films) Enrico Job, by all accounts a perfectly lovely man and extraordinary artist. When Wertmuller wordlessly walks through rooms in their vacation house filled with mementos of Job’s brilliant career, it’s an overwhelmingly emotional scene worthy of one of her films.
 
Behind the White Glasses is showing at the newly renovated and recently re-opened Quad Cinema in Manhattan as part of the opening retrospective Lina Wertmuller: Female Trouble. Although far from complete—it’s too bad that films needing reappraisal like Saturday, Sunday and Monday (especially its three-hour TV version) and others rarely if ever seen in New York, like her last feature, 2004’s Too Much Romance...It’s Time for Stuffed Peppers, starring Sophia Loren and F. Murray Abraham, are missing from the schedule—the series serves as a fine big screen overview of an important if erratic artist.
 
Giancarlo Giannini in Seven Beauties
 
If you see only one Wertmuller film, make it the sardonic, vulgar, hilarious and ultimately shattering Seven Beauties, containing Giannini’s stupendous and unforgettable performance. But there are hidden gems like Sotto Sotto, a tough but tender 1984 comedy about a wife who, after falling for another woman, must deal with her husband’s uncontrollable anger after discovering it’s not another man. Also included are her first two features, the clunky but interesting The Lizards (1963) and Let’s Talk About Men (1964).
 
If in recent years she has been relegated to an answer in an Oscar quiz (she was the first female nominated for Best Director for Seven Beauties), Behind the White Glasses and Female Trouble give Wertmuller her due as an inventive, passionate and endlessly entertaining filmmaker.
 
Behind the White Glasses
Lina Wertmuller: Female Trouble
Quad Cinema, 34 W 13th Street, New York, NY
quadcinema.com

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